November 23, 2023

A Letter from Manuel Borja-Villel and Vasıf Kortun regarding Documenta 16

Manuel J. Borja-Villel and Vasif Kortun

Documenta has been the reference of the art world for decades, marking the spirit of our times. However, today, Documenta is more of a symptom of a plagued Europe than anything else.

It is increasingly evident that culture and cultural institutions have become a battleground, which the illiberal forces are ready to conquer. The attacks against the last Documenta and the counteraction to reorganize its governance prove so. What was once a site for experimentation and autonomy is becoming a site of control. Historically, since Documenta 5, the director and their team had complete freedom of creativity. Instead, the function of the newly appointed Director of Fridericianum and Documenta Gmbh appears to be control and political supervision.

Some months ago, we both were invited individually to submit a proposal. But we decided to do a joint proposal, which was accepted and even discussed by the Finding Committee. But then we received a letter from Documenta stating that our application had to be “terminated” out of a formality. Should we have been disregarded because our project was not compelling for the Finding Committee, we would have had nothing to say. However, to be eliminated out of formality once the Committee already discussed the project was uncanny. The last news about Documenta, the denouncement of Ranjit Hoskote by Documenta, the resignation of Bracha Ettinger, then that of Hoskote, followed by the rest of the Finding Committee, is proof of a crisis that we think is not artistic but political. Even if it exposes us, we consider it ethical to go public. At stake is not only the autonomy of an institution, which has been fundamental to all of us but also the survival of Documenta itself.

As in its most extraordinary editions, the importance of Documenta lies in its capacity to address the role of art and offer tools to understand the shifts in history. As we wrote in our proposal, Documenta should adjust to alternative ways of understanding the world. We all stand to lose if Documenta avoids questioning the status quo and limits itself to social scripts.

At this moment, we have more questions than answers. What led the Committee to resign, and how did the persecution of Ranjit Hoskote begin? Was there somebody who ordered a sinister investigation to unearth an obscure document from 2019 and release it at the appropriate time? What exactly is the director’s role of Museum Fridericianum and Documenta Gmbh? Is he there to facilitate realizing the chosen project or just the opposite? How come the problem of confidentiality came out once our proposal was read? Perhaps the ideas set forth or the list of proposed collaborators were not aligned with the new spirit of Documenta. And finally, do German officials understand that Documenta, like any museum or art center, is a place where society can deal with its terrors, desires, and hopes, and can only do that when freedom of creativity is guaranteed?

Sadly, all this echoes the witch hunts targeting all public intellectuals in Europe and abroad who called for peace in Palestine. It also looks like there are invested interests in filling a space that has been left empty. At last?

Manuel Borja-Villel

Vasıf Kortun

November 22, 2023

Attachment: A summary of the correspondence with Documenta Management

1. July 2023. We were individually invited to submit a proposal for d16.

2. August 2023. After finding out that we had both been selected, that we shared a common vision, and that our mutual collaboration and that of other colleagues could enrich the project we planned to invite, we decided to send a joint proposal. Before we did that, we checked with one of the members of the Finding Committee to see if this was okay. We received a positive answer.

3. September 29. We submitted our proposal to d16.

4. September 29. The receipt of our proposal was confirmed and shared with the Finding Committee.

5. October 19. Documenta management wrote to us after the meetings of the Finding Committee. The management claimed our proposal would not be considered because the invitation was personal, and the confidentiality agreement forbade us to share the invitation “with third parties.”

6. October 20. We wrote back to refute the arbitrary interpretation of the confidentiality agreement and that one thinks about a team as one prepares a proposal. In our experience (as members of the Finding Committee and curators invited to the selection process in the past), it has also been customary for Documenta. Naturally, one requests their absolute confidentiality. We also mentioned that we were both asked to present a project and cannot be regarded as a third party.

7. October 20. After receiving another mail in which the managing director of Museum Fridericianum and Documenta stated again that our application had to be terminated (sic), we asked that the Finding Committee review this decision.

8. October 20. The managing director wrote back, stating that he is the only one who can decide about the confidentiality issue and that the Finding Committee’s function is to advise Documenta in the selection process.

9. October 22. We responded that the procedure should be fair to everybody, and working intensively on a proposal and having it turned down without deliberation is unacceptable. To the managing director’s argumentation that our joint proposal gave us an advantage, we explained that candidacy could be advantageous only if we assume that the finding committee cannot decide on their own will. The joint proposal put us at a clear disadvantage as we submitted one instead of two projects, which would have increased our chances.

10. October 30. Documenta’s management did not change its position and refused to consider the application on its merit.

Contemporary Art, War & Conflict
Documenta, Germany, Middle East

Manuel Borja-Villel was Director of the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía (MNCARS) in Madrid from 2008 until 2023.

Vasif Kortun is a curator, writer and teacher in the field of contemporary visual art, its institutions, and spatial practices. He has vast experience and knowledge in establishing mission driven institutions, long-term strategies, design and building processes and in assembling interdisciplinary teams.


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